"Go back and die in Nigeria.” The words still echo in the soft-spoken young man’s mind as he recalls the parting words of a Cameroonian soldier as he pushed a group of 40 Nigerians across the border. Then the young man, whom I will call “Luka,” pauses and adds, “They severely beat us, some so badly they were bleeding heavily.”
Luka is one of at least 100,000 victims of Cameroon’s brutal assault on Nigerian asylum seekers since early 2015. In an effort to stem attacks by the Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram in northern Cameroon, Cameroonian soldiers—who during the past decade have received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance—have systematically trapped people fleeing the conflict in northeast Nigeria in remote Cameroonian border areas and denied them access to the country’s only refugee camp.
Far removed from the gaze of rights monitors or journalists, Cameroonian soldiers have tortured, sexually exploited and assaulted the Nigerian refugees, denied them protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and violently deported them.
Dozens of survivors of these abuses, among them Luka, recently described to a visiting delegation from Human Rights Watch how these soldiers accused them of being Boko Haram fighters, or fighters’ wives, and then brutally attacked them.
The Cameroonian authorities have chosen to bury their heads in the sand and deny that there has been any forced return or abuse of Nigerian refugees, calling our recent report on the situation a “fantasy.” Yet for the people fleeing war and destitution in Nigeria, the situation is no fantasy, but the stuff of nightmares.
Tens of thousands of people pushed back into Nigeria have ended up in militarized displacement camps or villages in Nigeria’s war-torn Borno State. There, humanitarian conditions are dire and women and girls face sexual exploitation. In early September, at least 20 Nigerians returning from Cameroon were killed in Boko Haram attacks on camps, which are surrounded by the ongoing conflict between Nigeria’s armed forces and the militants. As of early October, almost two million civilians had been forced from their homes.
Cameroon’s mass deportation of asylum seekers to Nigeria amounts to one of the worst breaches in recent times of the international principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the forcible return of refugees and asylum seekers to places where they risk persecution. And it is acting in defiance of a United Nations plea not to forcibly return anyone to northeast Nigeria “until the security and human rights situation has improved considerably.”
The U.N. refugee agency is so concerned that it recently took the unusual step of publicly criticizing Cameroon while its top protection official singled out the deportations at a meeting of the agency’s members.
To end the refugees’ nightmare—and to protect what is left of its well-deserved reputation as a generous refugee-hosting country—Cameroon should stop returning men, women and children to face more violence. And, as a major player in Cameroon, the United States should use its influence to end these abuses.